DAN McFarland was looking forward to a day of watching rugby on the couch yesterday as the extent of the challenge awaiting Ulster in the spring slowly unfolded in front of his eyes.
Saturday’s tedious 22-15 win over Bath at Kingspan Stadium guaranteed his team a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup for the second year in a row.
Last weekend’s defeat at Clermont ensured they will again be playing away from home when the knockout stages come around, but he believes they are better equipped to do that than 12 months ago, when they came up a little short against Leinster in a cracking game at the Aviva Stadium.
“I can’t wait for it (quarter-final) because we go into it knowing we belong there, and that is really important.
“Whether it’s physically or mentally or tactically preparing ourselves, wherever we go it is a big ask because we are going to one of their best four teams in Europe, to ‘their house’.
“Two years in a row now we have won five pool games and booked ourselves a quarter-final.
“Last week I was a bit disappointed we didn’t give ourselves a chance of a home quarter but for a club at our stage to be able to say we’ve made the top eight in Europe two years in a row. I’d have to be pretty happy.”
Ulster knew on Saturday they would be facing one of the French giants or Exeter, and yesterday’s results mean they are now away to Toulouse.
Although accusing Bath of trying to “bore us to death with their kicking game and an injury every 30 seconds”, McFarland was much happier with Ulster’s greater sense of urgency and purpose in the second half.
They were lucky to be drawing 7-7 at the interval, having failed to build on Marcell Coetzee’s early try.
A defensive howler from Jacob Stockdale allowed Bath to level through Ruairi McConnochie, but two tries within eight minutes of the restart from Robert Balacoune and the excellent Will Addison saw Ulster establish control.
McFarland refused to blame fatigue, as Ulster rounded off a bloc of 13 games on successive weekends, as a factor in his team’s poor performance but is generally positive and optimistic that after they get a well-earned break, they will return with gusto for both the PRO14 and particularly a European showdown.
“I reckon that if we play as well as we can we are in a better position than last year, definitely.
“But if we don’t we are not far away from losing comfortably.
“Our attack-shape and our ability to prise open defences is better now. I think our defence is definitely better now. Our kicking and aerial game is better.
“I don’t think we can win a quarter-final away from home, and statistics will tell us we are less likely to, unless we are at our absolute best.
“That will be our focus when we have moved through a whole chunk of games before that, and we have no lack of enthusiasm for doing that.”
He described Addison’s withdrawal in the second half due to a tightness in his calf as “precautionary” and also seemed fairly confident that Tom O’Toole’s rib injury would not curtail his involvement in Ireland’s Six Nations squad.
Uncapped fly-half Billy Burns said he was “over the moon” to receive his first call-up for Ireland, but insisted he will not link up with his new Ireland team-mates tomorrow just happy to be there.
“I am really excited to meet up with the guys, a lot of them I don’t know, hopefully that will take my game to another level and hopefully end up in an international cap.
“As much as I’m in the squad that doesn’t mean I’m an international player.
“I have to prove my worth on the pitch.”
Burns, a former England Under-20 international in is second season at Ulster, and sensed this might be the year when the the door was ajar to international recognition.
“It seemed like a good time because it felt like a new era with Joe (Schmidt) leaving and Andy (Farrell) coming in.
“It’s boring to say but knew I had to get my stuff right here and I am still building to be the ultimate player. I know I have a long way to go to be the player I want to be.”
Coetzee, Balacoune, Addison Cons: Cooney 2, Pen: B Burns
McConnochie, Batty, Con: F Burns, Pen: F Burns
W Addison; R Balacoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee
A McBurney, E O’Sullivan, R Kane, K Treadwell, N Timoney, D Shanahan, B Johnston, C Gilroy
T Homer; G Hamer-Webb, J Willison, M Wright, R McConnochie; F Burns, O Fox; B Obano, J Walker, W Stuart; M Garvey, C Ewels; T Ellis, S Underhill. J Bayliss Replacements: R Batty, L Noguera, S Nixon, J McNally, M Williams, C Cook, R Priestland, T de Glanville
Alexandre Ruiz (France)